Monday, 25 April 2011


When One Door Closes


When I was young I had an enquiring mind: Having asked “why” I hated being fobbed off with an answer that would keep me quiet. I really did want to know why something was as it was. I think that this trait has never left me. This is why I have become increasingly disillusioned with the BBC. The BBC is funded by us and so it is ours but I feel it scarcely represents us, nor does it even attempt to.

I wrote HERE a little while ago about how the BBC has given the Energy Companies an incredibly easy ride when they talk about about wind power plants. There is not even the slightest attempt to challenge what they are being told by the industry. Frankly, it is woeful journalism.

Europe and Scotland in particular, is on a mad rush to renewable energy, based on the premise of Climate Change and the need to move away from a carbon based energy supply. Whether or not you believe in man made global warming, this is the main driver that is spawning wind turbines all over our wild land. But how sound is the science behind this massive driver to the change in our landscapes? If you are to believe the BBC (and to be fair, most mainstream media) it is a done deal. It is fact. But the truth of the matter is that there are scientists out there who don’t agree with it. I am not arguing one way or the other on the rights or wrongs of who is right on this topic, but I believe that the BBC has a duty to report fairly and accurately and it is their duty to challenge on our behalf the views of both parties in the discussion.

Well, even those who have worked at the BBC are now saying how dreadful the situation has become these days.

After a 45-year career spanning the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, Peter Sissons is more qualified to comment than most on the state of British media, current affairs and the world at large. His autobiography, “WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES” is a hugely entertaining account of the distinguished and popular career of one of television's best-known anchors. Sissons has seen both the BBC and commercial television at their best and their worst and has his own highly readable views on what he has encountered.

I found this particular passage enlightening. I have pasted it here in its entirety:

One story, or type of story, that recurred with increasing frequency during the last ten years of my time at the BBC, was the issue, in some form or another, of global warming, which became climate change when temperatures appeared to level off or fall slightly after 1998. From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC’s coverage of this issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than the over-simplified two minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of the BBC’s environment correspondents. These, without exception, accepted the UN’s assurance that ‘the science is settled’ and that human emissions of carbon dioxide threatened the world with catastrophic climate change.

Environmental pressure groups could be guaranteed that their press releases, usually beginning with the words ‘scientists say...’ would get on air unchallenged. On one famous occasion, after the 2009 inauguration, the science correspondent of Newsnight actually informed viewers that ‘scientists calculate that President Obama has just four years to save the world’. What she didn’t tell them was that only one alarmist scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, had said that.

My interest in climate change grew out of my concern for the failings of BBC journalism in reporting the subject. I have written previously about what was expected of a journalist in my early days at ITN: you have an obligation to report both sides of a story. It is not journalism if you don’t. It is close to propaganda. The BBC’s editorial policy was spelled out in a report in June 2007 by the BBC Trust, which disclosed that the BBC had held ‘a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus’.

The error here, of course, is that the BBC never at any stage gave equal space to the opponents of the consensus.

But the Trust continued its pretence that climate change dissenters had been, and still would be, heard on its airwaves: ‘Impartiality always requires a breadth of view: for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space.’ Such a statement showed how detached the Trust was from what the BBC was actually doing - the ‘appropriate space’ given to minority views on climate change being practically zero. The policy was underlined a year later in another statement: ‘BBC News currently takes the view that their reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made.’ Those scientists outside the ‘consensus’ waited in vain for the phone to ring.

My principal concern was that this policy represented a dereliction of journalistic duty by the BBC, which damages the BBC’s reputation among people whose support it should be able to take for granted. One of the things I do from time to time, as a freelance, is to chair business conferences, often involving senior entrepreneurs, financiers and industrialists. In private conversation I find that almost none of them can tell me how much of the atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide. Some would say as much as 20 per cent, others 3 or 4 per cent. When I tell them it’s 0.039 per cent, most of which is natural, the invariant reply is why has the BBC never told us that?

As for the top-level BBC seminar which I mentioned above, we know practically nothing about it. Despite a Freedom of Information request, they wouldn’t even make the guest list public. There is one brief account of the proceedings, written by a conservative commentator who was there. Richard D. North was a former environment correspondent at The Independent who had morphed into one of the more moderate climate change sceptics, and somehow got under the radar for the event. He wrote subsequently that he was far from impressed with the thirty key BBC staff who attended. None of them, he said ‘had shown even a modicum of professional journalistic curiosity on the subject’. He also said that none of them appeared to read anything on the subject other than The Guardian. That was also my experience from observing at close hand the pervading influence that newspaper and its soulmate The Independent have in the BBC newsroom - a mindset, incidentally that goes far beyond attitudes to climate change.

It’s this lack of simple curiosity about one of the great issues of our time that I find so puzzling about the BBC. As a presenter, when the topic came to prominence, the first thing I did was trawl the internet to find out as much as possible about it. Anyone who does this with a mind not closed by religious fervour will find a mass of material by respectable scientists — yes, who are in the minority — who question the orthodoxy. Even I, who had a classical education, could understand what Albert Einstein was getting at when he said that it didn’t matter how many scientists agreed with him, it took only one to prove him wrong. If scepticism should be the natural instinct of scientists, it should certainly be the default setting of journalists. Yet the cream of the BBC’s inquisitors, during my time at the BBC, never laid a glove on those who repeated the mantra ‘the science is settled’. On one occasion. the MP Denis MacShane, himself a former President of the National Union of Journalists, used BBC airtime to link climate change doubters with perverts and Holocaust deniers and his famous interviewer didn’t bat an eyelid.

All this wasn’t just down to the proselytising of The Guardian and the hold that it has on the BBC.

Al Gore, who had entertained the BBC’s editorial elite in his suite at the Dorchester, and been given a free run to make his case to an admiring internal audience at Television Centre, had done his work well. His views were never subjected to journalistic scrutiny, even when a British High Court judge, Mr Justice Burton, ruled that Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth contained at least nine scientific errors, and that ministers must send new guidance to teachers before it was screened in schools. From the BBC’s standpoint, Mr Justice Burton’s judgment was the real inconvenience and its environment correspondents downplayed its significance.

At the end of November 2007 I was on duty on News 24, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced its fourth Assessment Report at a conference in Valencia. To be fair, reporters at the time couldn’t have known that it contained significant inaccuracies, many stemming from its reliance on non-peer reviewed sources and best-guesses by environmental activists. But the way the BBC’s reporter treated the story was as if it was, beyond a vestige of doubt, the last word on the catastrophe awaiting mankind. The most challenging questions addressed to a succession of UN employees and climate activists were ‘How urgent is it?’ and ‘How much danger are we in?’ Sceptical scientists were referred to as if they were some kind of oddballs. Back in the studio I tried to redress the balance in an interview with the environment minister, Phil Woolas. I put to him, not questions of mine, but questions emailed by viewers to the BBC website, where sceptics were often in the majority.

It was a lively exchange, but the problem was that it began at about twenty-six minutes past the hour. After a short time I was told in my earpiece to wrap it up and hand to the weather, which is a News 24 fixture just before the top of the hour and at half past. I was frustrated and annoyed. It was quite obvious that no one in the control gallery was even listening to the interview I was doing. Mr Woolas could have confessed to me that he had just murdered his wife and I would still have been told to hand to the weather. Subsequently I suggested that we line up one or two sceptics to react to the IPPC’s report, but received a totally negative response, as if I was some kind of lunatic. I went home and wrote another aide memoire: ‘What happened to the journalism? The BBC has completely lost it. Don’t we have a duty to challenge any position that is put forward for public support, to test it in the public interest - especially when there is so much at stake, should the analysis be mistaken? Do these reporters even realise what their job is? Have they completely lost their critical faculties?’

A damaging episode illustrating the BBC’s supine attitude in the climate change debate, came in April 2008, when a Green activist, Jo Abbess, emailed the BBC’s ‘environment analyst’ Roger Harrabin, complaining about a piece he’d written on the BBC’s website reporting some work by the World Meteorological Organization that questioned whether the warming would continue as projected by the IPCC - both organisations being arms of the UN.

Abbess complained; Harrabin at first resisted. Abbess berated him: ‘It would be better if you did not quote the sceptics (something Harrabin had not actually done) ... please reserve the main BBC online channel for emerging truth... Otherwise I would have to conclude that you are insufficiently educated to be able to know when you have been psychologically manipulated.’

Did Harrabin tell her to get lost? He tweaked the story - albeit not as radically as she demanded - and emailed back: ‘Have a look in ten minutes and tell me you are happier.’ This exchange went round the world in no time, spread by a jubilant Abbess. Later, Harrabin defended himself, saying they were only minor changes - but the sense of the changes (as specifically sought by Ms Abbess) was plainly to harden the piece against the sceptics. Many people wouldn’t call that minor, but Harrabin’s BBC bosses accepted his explanation.

The sense of entitlement with which Green groups regard the BBC was brought home to me later that year, when what was billed as a major climate change rally was held in London. It was a miserable, wintry, wet day, and turnout was much less than the organisers hoped for. I was on duty that Saturday afternoon, on News 24. It had been pre-arranged that the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, would go into our Westminster Studio to be interviewed by me. She clearly expected, as do most environmental activists, what I call a ‘free hit’ - to be allowed to say her piece without challenge.

I began, good naturedly, by observing that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment, and that we were having a particularly cold winter while carbon emissions were powering ahead. Miss Lucas reacted as if I’d physically molested her. She was outraged; it was no job of the BBC - the BBC! - to ask questions like that. Didn’t I realise that there could be no argument over the science? I persisted with a few simple observations of fact, such as there appeared to have been no warming for ten years, in contradiction of all the alarmist computer models. I don’t have a transcript, but remarks about the interview did make it onto the most respected and mainstream of the sceptical websites, Anthony Watts’ ‘Watts Up With That?’ Here’s an excerpt of what a viewer posted on WUWT :

Today I watched an interview on the BBC News channel here in the UK where a leading Green campaigner was challenged by a BBC correspondent as to the veracity of Anthropogenic Climate Change. I was floored by this novel and totally unexpected treatment from a BBC correspondent. [Lucas] went immediately into a save the world monologue including the tipping point is nigh and other related phrases ... Sissons when he got back in injected no warming since 1998 and made the point that contrary to the ‘consensus’ an increasing number of scientists are coming out against the consensus. By this time Lucas was virtually apoplectic, mixing words and demanding to know how the BBC could be coming out and making such comments ... Sissons came back that his role as a journalist is always to investigate and review all sides and he would continue to do so. Lucas finished with a further attack and a somewhat veiled warning to which Sissons replied with an ‘oohh’.

Later that afternoon I interviewed the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, on the same topic, and put the same points. He seemed a bit surprised by my line of questioning, replying only that he didn’t think what I was saying was true. It was obvious that, like Lucas, he was quite thrown by the novelty of this line of enquiry by a BBC reporter, indeed any reporter, and had never given serious thought about what answers he might give if challenged in this way. What was undeniably true is that at the time no other interviewers on the BBC — or indeed on ITV News or Channel Four News - had asked questions about climate change which didn’t start from the assumption that the science was settled. In my lonely position I was eventually joined by Andrew Neil, who skilfully eviscerated the then environment secretary Hilary Benn on his show The Daily Politics.

But it was the scandal over the Climategate emails that was a real game changer, and more recently a number of other colleagues have started to tiptoe onto the territory that was for so long off-limits. The BBC Trust has also finally responded to the damage being inflicted on the BBC’s credibility in numerous respectable internet forums, where its climate change coverage has long been regarded as a joke. What is billed as a ‘major review’ will examine whether the BBC’s science coverage, particularly of climate change, is biased. Don’t hold your breath.

A week after the Saturday on which I interviewed the leader of the Green Party, I went into work as usual, and picked up my mail from my pigeon hole. Among the envelopes was a small jiffy-bag, which I opened. It contained a dollop of faeces wrapped in several sheets of toilet paper.


  1. Cheers for that, Alan. I had heard interviews about Sissons' book, but have yet to read it.

    I have been accused of being harsh about the BBC on my own blog, but I am only so critical because I love it. I get every penny of value out of the licence fee, but am annoyed by the quality of many of the programs. I understand that programs cannot be to everyone's taste (I hate Eastenders, but do not besmirch the BBC spending money on it). What I cannot forgive is them giving an hours' broadcasting time to something and doing it terribly.

    The BBCs political reporting is terrible, and seems to be solely about the reporters making names for themselves (ala Paxman) rather than getting difficult concepts and issues across. They simply use soundbites spoon-fed to them in advance by spin doctors. There is also a definite liberal bias, as apparently also mentioned by Sissons.

    With a few stellar exceptions (mostly on BBC Three) BBC TV covers science poorly - gone are the days of broadcasting the OU, and the basics of science are dumbed down to a great degree. They go for spectacle rather than education, and the climate debate (if it can be called a debate) is a prime example of this. I cannot remember the last time the BBC broadcast an equation, aside from the excellent 'history of mathematics' series. This is important: sometimes you cannot teach even the basics of science *without* equations.

    Roger Harrabin's patent bias has annoyed me on several occasions; at others he has done a good job of trying to balance the issues. But he does seem to tend towards a certain viewpoint that I have major problems with (not the least being the fact that he does not seem to be able to explain probability or statistics properly to his readers).

    As an aside, I am surprised you never became a scientist if you wanted to know "why". I became an engineer precisely because I wanted to know how things worked: scientists asks "why", engineers ask "how". Both are vital :-)

  2. This should produce a hysterical response from some green-tinged quarters, I should think.
    Than God for proper journo's. They're living dangerously, though.

  3. If Peter Sisson's was a example of journalism, the world would be a far more interesting place. Consensus has no place in Science or in Journalism. They both have to challenge the "fact" and hopefully expose and discover the truth. We are building a world were the Bully reigns supreme. I just worry where it will all end?

  4. Frontpage of BBC Scotland website this morning:

    Headline says:

    'Party Leaders campaign in cities'

    Note: in cities.

    Composite picture to illustrate the headline. 1) Worker in a factory; 2) prison guard locking someone up; 3) Two policeman... and yes, in a corner we also get, you guessed it, wind turbines!

    So there you have it. The voters' concerns in the cities include turbines!

    The explanation of the choice of turbines is that:

    "Alex Salmond will unveil SNP plans for all Scotland's electricity to be met from renewable energy by 2020."

    Talk about longest suicide note in history springs to mind...

  5. That should be an eye-opener for future journalists by mr.Sissons.

    Alan,did you type the whole story or did you use modern technology ?


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